The United States’ poverty has been for a long time linked to the gender and race issues as its fundamental cause. For instance Lin (39) reported that women earned wages 23.5% less than what men earned. More recently, United States’ Department of Labor revealed that median wage for a woman was 79.9% that of a man (Lin 39). Likewise, the median earnings have continuously varied between the races in the United States. The 2004 US Census Bureau report indicated that Black households earned the least income ($30,134), compared to that White households ($48,977), while the Hispanic households earned an average of $34,241 (Lin 41). Such are the factors that led to term, ‘feminization of poverty’ in the early 1970s. Of particular concern is the fact that there is lack of clarity on the actual meaning of the term feminization of poverty (Baden & Milward 22). In essence, feminization of poverty has been constructed in the context of the rise in households headed by female and the family participation in the low income generating activities, thus creating three distinct areas of focus:
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- that women are more susceptible to poverty prevalence
- that women poverty is more severe as compared to that of men, and
- That there is a trend to greater poverty among women, especially those linked to the rise in family headed households (Baden & Milward 23).
Many scholars have concurred that addressing poverty and inequality through gender and race construct would present the most effective approach to the problem solving (Baden & Milward 27; Buvinic & Gupta 39). On the other hand, others have suggested that the problem of gender is a household discrimination and subordination, and thus any effort to stamp out the problem must be based on the scope of household (Buvinic & Gupta 39). However, it is noted that most aggregate surveys based on the household income, both in relation to food availability and income indicators are always based on the assumption that household resources are shared equally among the members (Cagatay 19). Cagatay observes that what aggravates the matter is the fact that gender and race issues in relation to poverty and inequality lack systematic data on income and other welfare measures, hence the difficulty in assessing their trends (22).
In fact, the problem is deeply rooted as much as we are quite aware that women have historically earned less in both fronts of households and national level, and have had less exposure to basic resources and services. Considerably, such differentials are likely to occur within specific households between men and women or even within individuals (single men and single women), between households headed by men and that headed by women (i.e. women headed households disadvantaged due to some other factors as susceptibility to violence and illness) (Cagatay 20).
The efforts to reduce poverty among this group characterized by social programs may not be effective as has been observed before, since they have historically lacked express command over the resources for production as well as those used to control output, notably among the poor women of minority races. Cornwall (11) states that attempt to restructure the economic system to seal the gap has always not worked well with women as they have been disproportionately treated in relation to labor and minimal access to food resources. Realistically, this has extended the problem to the young children; especially girls from such households have bore the brunt of the inadequacies associated with the poverty phenomenon (Cornwall 12). Furthermore, Hartman (331) states that the available safety-net programs have focused more on men, because they have not taken into consideration the changes that have occurred in the socio-economic and political restructuring. It is now evident that there is enough literature indicating that women are more vulnerable to poverty than men, even if both gender are exposed to same level of poverty, hence any effort to eliminate poverty and inequality should be more skewed towards women. However, this phenomenon has eluded the policy makers and thus created a lot of concern among the academic and the general observers in the United States. It is the dilemma and challenges that have consistently made many scholars and observers believe that the only way to solve the problem is through policy overhaul on the gender approach (Hatman 339; Cornwall 18; Lin 242).
The policy History
Although there seem to be lack of express clarity the feminization of gender, many international organizations and agencies have developed policies focused towards gender dimension, with presumption that there is connect between gender inequality and increased prevalence of poverty. In fact, UNDP (4) categorically states that “poverty has a woman’s face- of 1.3 billion people living in poverty, 70% are women’. In 1935, the United States government initiated a policy that supported Aid to Family with Dependent Children (AFDC) program (Wratten 15). This program would later run until 1996, with average annual expenditure of $24 billion (Wratten 15).
Other than the high cost of this policy, some very critical concerns emerged about the welfare policy; many people raised the issue of gender being incorporated, as a subset of poverty concerns with attention being focused mainly on poor women, instead of the gender inequality (Wratten 17). Some critics observed that gender subordination never come as a result of poverty as such; that incorporating the concerns about gender within poverty agenda limits the scope of possible analysis of gender which may not help address how and why inequalities in gender are multiplied across the whole society and not only among the ‘poor’(Lin 267). However, Jackson observe the merging of gender and poverty issue is not likely to help the initiatives to solve poverty problems, since it is likely to “lead to confusion in targeting since not all women are poor and not all the poor are women” (19).
Changes have occurred in the U.S system of welfare policy in the recent past, which have led to the dismantling of the federal system in favor of a system wherein states are given welfare funds to spend, subject to some federal guideline, but also to some degree are allowed to choose how to spend them (Hartman 311). The 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which fulfilled President’s Clinton’s campaign pledge to “end welfare as we know it”, can be viewed as the culmination of a series of events that began when several pieces of Reagan-era federal legislation encouraged development of state-run workforce programs (Hartman 311) Under the 1996 legislation, extended through 2010, states operate under several constraints if they want to continue to receive federal support for their welfare recipients (Hartman 312). Adults cannot receive more than two consecutive years of benefits, and no more than five years worth in their lifetime. The new policy also requires that states must cut benefits of mother who refuse to cooperate in locating fathers who are in child support arrears. Furthermore, federal aid is unavailable for unmarried teen parents who are not leaving at home or under adult supervision, and teen parents must attend school.
The main concern for the program was its staggering cost. In other words, critics cited a litany of statistics and disturbing trends- including rising AFDC rolls, mounting program costs, and escalating rates of illegitimacy- in efforts to prove that the system was broken (Hartman 314). The incremental reforms of the previous decades, which include the federal legislation, the Family Support Act of 1988, appeared ineffective in the face of such a crisis of legitimacy (Hartman 315). The mounting political pressure to eliminate the welfare program was even evident in the 1992 elections, when Bill Clinton declared ending welfare program as one of his main agendas (Cornwall 33). It therefore emerged that it was no longer the question of whether to undertake an ambitious reform of the welfare system, but rather precisely how to go about a dramatic restructuring of United States’ welfare policy (Cornwall 33).
The academia works of the new critics of AFDC had implied the need to drastically overhaul the policy. However, the real agents of the welfare policy reforms turned out to be the new Republican congressional majority elected in 1994 in the contract of its “Contract with America”. This campaign document included sections such as the one entitled “The Personal Responsibility Act” (Cornwall 33). However, in an attempt to keep its promise on welfare, the new majority speedily introduced a welfare reform proposal into the opening session of the 104th Congress as bill HR 4 in January 1995 (Cornwall 34). The original version of the H4 passed the House within the first one hundred days of its introduction, but later took sixteen more months, two vetoes, and a number of revisions and amendments before it were signed into law by President Clinton on August 22, 1996 (Cornwall 34). Despite the compromises and challenges the bill underwent during a series of legislative battles at all levels (committee, full senate, and joint conference committee), the original welfare bills central provisions remained basically intact (Cornwall 34). They were outlined by this list that appeared in a March 1995 document of the Republican Party:
- Require work for benefits
- Turn back most of the welfare to the states to encourage experimentation and cost-effectiveness
- Stop subsidizing illegitimacy
- Make welfare a temporary safety net, not a lifetime support system
- End the ,open-ended entitlement feature of welfare by block-granting programs to the states and establishing enforceable spending caps, and
Renew the vital role of private institutions, such as charities, Boys and Girls Clubs, and neighborhood groups to serve as support networks (Cornwall 33).
However rising inequality has not detracted from the belief that upward mobility is possible. Although such mobility has not increased over the past thirty years and economic disparity has reached historic levels (United Nations29). Findings from national opinion polls underscore the extent to which inequality is accepted and normalized. More Americans today than twenty years ago believe that it is possible to move from poverty to affluence through hard work (Whitehead & Lockwood 530). Some public opinion polls have also indicated that tolerance for inequality has grown as disparity itself has risen (Whitehead & Lockwood 530).
The current policies have called for more focus to be given to women, in order to spread the benefits to a wider household (UNDP 29). In particular, women in households are targeted with specific resources with an informed idea that befits accruing from such programs to women would be passed on to their children (UNDP 31). This notion could have been informed by certain surveys which found out that nearly 73% of teenagers believe they would earn a lot of money. In the same report, gender disparity persisted in the belief with boys expecting to earn more ($174, 000) than girls ($114,200) (Whitehead & Lockwood 526). The authors stated that the broader context of these beliefs is demographic inequality that reinforces race, gender, and class-based stereotypes (227). Principally, the hardship of poverty falls disproportionately on ethnic minorities and female-headed households as illustrated earlier. It has been argued that when women get access to external resources, they are likely to change their perceived low value to the household, by enlarging their power to bargain (Whitehead & Lockwood 528).
The approaches that target education of girls and women have been in the forefront since the feminization of gender began. In this aspect, it is important to note that the power that is instilled among the female gender may to an extent generate a desired result (Whitehead & Lockwood 529). However, Hartman (314) claims that caution should be taken considering the fact that increasing women’s access to resources is likely to increase the burden of being overworked in the house, living them exhausted. He insists that women may feel compelled to invest more resources, including their labor in the interest of the family, hence increasing their vulnerability in case the family breaks.
However, as stated in some study highlighted above, the mental bias on the earning ability is something that develops in early age of life. Whitehead & Lockwood (527) observe that children make judgments about class at an early age, and as they grow older their conceptualization become more consistent with dominant stereotypes. In a research with youth ranging in age from six to seventeen, Wratten (453) found out that as children grew older, their descriptions of the rich and poor shift from emphasizing physical characteristics (appearance, possessions) to personal characteristics (abilities, traits). Similarly, the perceived legitimacy of inequality and individualistic attributions for poverty and wealth become more common with age. By age eleven, the belief that the poor could not work harder had increased substantially, and thereafter inequality was less likely to be seen as a problem that could be solved by having the rich give to the poor (Wratten 454). It is thus critical to observe that such issues should be taken into account even as long term policies on poverty reduction initiatives are put forward.
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So far, the most noticeable effect of the policy change has been an enormous drop in state caseloads (Cornwall 41). From 1993 to 2000, caseloads dropped by 56% and have continued to trend downward slightly (Cornwall 41).
It is acknowledged that several empirical evidences exist to suggest that there is rising female household heads. These evidences suggest that women are more vulnerable than men when exposed to similar level of poverty. It is also indicated that poor women are rising in number, especially those from minority groups, comprising of African American and Hispanics. However, current approaches to poverty understanding in the urban setting illustrate the inherent need to increase our scope on the understanding of poverty as well as measuring it. Critically, it must be acknowledged that poverty itself is a multidimensional concept that the trend of measuring it through household income seems to limit its scope, especially for women and the children (Lin 41). In fact, the use of standard index of income vs. expenditure falls short of capturing the complex nature of differences in gender, in relation to poverty and gender assessment ((Lin 42). For instance, the illustrated psychological impact of poverty on the young people as they grow to be adult is just but one of the main indicator that poverty cuts a cross many disciplines.
For a comprehensive policy enactment, it’s thus necessary to examine a broader aspect of poverty phenomenon in order to understand the full indictors of well being. The following perspectives should therefore be examined:
- Health and social psychology indicators (e.g. nutrition, life expectancy, maternal mortality, the mental set up, individual attributes, health insurance etc )
- Resource accessibility (e.g. employment opportunities and income, property ownership, access to basic resources such as safe water, food availability, etc) (Lin 47).
The media has been known to play significant role in exposing important issues to the society. However, the recent surge of information linking gender, race and poverty to mainly minority groups has generally increased the negative social perception of poverty on these particular groups. The new stories exaggerate the relationship between minority status and poverty by overrepresenting African Americans in features about poverty (Hartman (318). In the analysis of the contents of photographs published in five major news magazines between 1993 and 1998, African Americans were featured in 49% of the stories about poverty but made up only 27% of the poor (Hartman 318). Conversely, whites were significantly underrepresented, appearing in only 33% of stories but making up 45% of those in poverty (Hartman 319). Hispanics were underrepresented by 5% and Asian Americans were invisible (Hartman 319). Hartman explains that the absence of images depicting Asian Americans in Americans in poverty may reflect their stereotypical association with industriousness and intelligence, just as stereotypes about the weak work ethic of African Americans may contribute to overrepresentation (320).
These findings indicate that ignoring the functionality of media in perpetuating the poverty concept on the basis of race and gender in the policy construct is detrimental to the efforts put I place. In fact, it may call for close scrutiny of the role of media in exposing poverty prevalence, with clear intention of monitoring these contents and the implication they have on the communities.
Another aspect that has been observed is in line with women are conditionally weaker in terms of entitlements; that is, they are more vulnerable in relation to resiliency to poverty; they have limited options once poor (Lin 269). This therefore calls for a closer scrutiny of the household aspect of gender, since unequal distribution of resources may extend to the household, a very difficult phenomenon to notice, but may be real. However, Lin (279) advises that more research should be done to establish what makes women more vulnerable to avoid simplistic policy recommendations that are likely to fail in addressing the underlying problems of inequality. It is therefore necessary that more efforts on data collection of gender, race and poverty interconnect are necessary to help unlock more on the policy documents. Also critical is the exposure on how and if policy changes have created any significant changes or not to much their initial billings
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